How the four MVP favorites unlocked their home run power


Cody Bellinger, who damn near broke the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ home run record this season, managed only one home run as a high school senior. Alex Bregman, who belted 41 homers despite also leading his sport in walks, never once reached double-digit home runs in college. Mike Trout, on a faster home run pace for his career than all but four players, went deep every 49 at-bats in the minor leagues. Christian Yelich, who has required only 277 games to produce 80 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers, was typecast as a slap hitter as he neared his mid-20s.

Major league baseball is immersed in the most prodigious home run era of its history, a remarkable circumstance for a sport once tainted by prevalent steroid use. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever and aggressive defensive shifts are commonplace, so hitters are looking to lift, looking to pull and, mostly, looking to slug. The 2019 season, dominated by theories about juiced baseballs, produced 6,776 home runs, blowing past the previous record of 6,105, set only two years earlier.

Bellinger, Bregman, Trout and Yelich are products of that environment. But they’re more than that — they’re what happens when naturally gifted hitters evolve through a time defined by the long ball.

See, it’s not that they couldn’t hit home runs before; it’s that they didn’t care enough to. They were more concerned with the subtleties that produce great hitters, like controlling the strike zone, honing their opposite-field power and consistently meeting the baseball with the barrel of their bat. Their power wasn’t yet prevalent enough for home runs to result from all that.

Bellinger, Bregman, Trout and Yelich are now four of the game’s most complete hitters. They made up four of the top five spots in weighted runs created plus this past season, and on Thursday, they’re each expected to finish in the top two in Most Valuable Player voting for their respective leagues.

What follows is a look at each player’s path toward the most elusive part of his game — the home run.

Cody Bellinger

Cody Bellinger was always young and always small for the level at which he played. He was already scrawny before growing 8 inches during his junior year of high school, shooting from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-4. When the Dodgers made him their fourth-round pick in 2013, he weighed no more than 165 pounds. His frame was expanding too quickly. His metabolism was working too efficiently.

“He would eat and eat and eat, and he would never gain,” Bellinger’s father, Clay, said. “That’s just the way it was — it’s genetics.”

Clay, a former utility player who spent three seasons with the New York Yankees, could relate. He had the same body type when he graduated high school, then added weight later and grew stronger. He knew the same would happen for his son, and that with it, the power would ultimately emerge; those line drives Bellinger kept sending into the outfield gaps would begin to travel over the fence with more frequency. But watching his son become one of baseball’s most celebrated home run hitters was unimaginable.

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